I Was Promised Fear, But All I Got Was This Handful of Dust: After Earth
After Earth is a difficult movie to appropriately review. It's getting absolutely hammered around the Internet, with a catastrophic 13% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment. The criticisms take aim at two main points: that the film is exceedingly dull and that Jaden Smith can't act his way out of a paper bag. The latter point is perfectly accurate. I hadn't seen a film with Jaden Smith in it yet, and other than a certain level of inescapable celebrity news coverage that seeps in no matter how indifferent you are, I went into this film with little in the way of a pre-formed opinion.
The younger Smith seems incapable of emoting other than in overly exaggerated dramatic cliches, that simply emphasize just how much of a vacant presence he is on the screen at all other times. It's one thing when that's said about a child actor, but Jaden is fifteen years old at this point and what's missing isn't something that can be taught or grown into. You can learn to act, but cannot learn to be the charismatic force that his father is. It would be an unfair comparison to make if Jaden showed acting ability along a different dimension than his father, but the fact that he doesn't only emphasizes that particular deficit. The hard reality is that this kid has shown no ability to actually do the jobs he continues to get by virtue of his father's name.
That's the easy part to review. The more difficult part to talk about is the movie itself. Science fiction stories set up a surface layer of a different world in order to address in the subtext themes and ideas that are applicable to our world and experience. This is rarely a one-to-one mapping except in exceedingly simplistic and lazy science fiction (and those aliens are Americans, and that planet is Iraq, and those mean people are the political party the author doesn't like), which is part of the power of science fiction. It lets us set up elements of stories that resonate dramatically but never sit next to each other in the real world. But the catch is that the surface layer better actually make sense and be interesting in its own right, or we'll never pay attention to the underlying themes.
After Earth has some major problems with that surface layer. So humans abandon the Earth they ruined and settle another planet, where they have to fight aliens. Said aliens, we are told in somber voice over, genetically develop creatures that can sense human fear. Basically they're big old CGI things like bears crossed with lions. The humans fight them with fancy little devices called cutlasses that transform into all manner of different blades. It's really too bad that humanity crossed the stars, figured out how to build T1000 swords, but forgot how to build shotguns, because then that war would have been a lot shorter.
Oh did I forget to mention that the creatures are blind and can only see humans that are afraid? And they're so damned stupid that the instant a human stops being afraid they become invisible? Oh my golly, there was a scared human, but he's been replaced by an inanimate object, where in the world could he have gone? And they go to great pains to establish that the basis of this is phermones, and that a human inside an airtight container is safe. So even if humanity really did forget how to build guns, one might think they would have a spacesuit or two in the spaceships they just got out of. Invisible army!
When your super scary alien menace is actually a lot less frightening than any of Earth's assorted large predators, the idea that they represent a threat driving humanity to the brink becomes sort of laughable. Bitch please, you're an overgrown blind lion. My ancestors faced your ilk down butt naked with flint spears. Smell my fear? Smell my cruise missiles, asshole.
And there's this really weird thing going on with accents. Everyone speaks perfect English after a thousand years, but they all have these strange hodge podge accents that fade out during action sequences when the actors forget they're supposed to be inexplicably violating their vowels. It's an interesting idea on paper, but in execution is just distracting. Jaden Smith has difficulty conveying broad ideas like "happy!" and "sad!" so throwing an imaginary accent at him is just ill-conceived and cruel.
And don't even get me started on the names. Will Smith's character is named "Cypher Raige", the last name of which is pronounced somewhere between "rage" and "rash" thanks to the bad accent work. Jaden's character is named "Kitai", which is Russian for "China". So for the entire movie, I'm thinking to myself that the rock bottom of unintentional humor must be the Fresh Prince yelling at China in Russian in an imaginary accent after the apocalypse.
But all of this setup only exists in order to crash land the Fresh and Fresher Princes upon long abandoned Earth, along with one of these monsters. And faster than we can pray that the bad actor is the one who gets injured and left behind, we're disappointed by the opposite. Thus is set up the tale of a boy who must survive in the wilderness and overcome his fears and inability to emote.
So the world building set-up of the first layer is terribly sub par. But let's take a breath for a moment and separate that part out. Just because the framing of the story is bad doesn't mean that the story itself has to be. And that part of the movie is much better, and has some interesting approaches that while they never quite pan out to being good, are at least attempts to explore what the nature of fear and bravery are.
Most critics are ripping apart how dull and eventless the middle portion of the movie is, noting that all Fresh China runs into are a few badly CGI'ed animals that aren't particularly different from what we see in zoos, failing in any way to live up to the promise of Will Smith's intonation that everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans. I think they're more or less totally off base, thinking with their own knowledge instead of the knowledge of the characters in the film. If you had never seen a monkey in your life, never been to a zoo, never seen an episode of Nova following them around, and your first experience was a group of them meandering towards you after having just been warned that everything was trying to kill you, you would probably panic too.
The idea that this natural world is terrifying to the characters not because of its dangers but because they don't know it is fantastic, linking the discussion of fear back to the unknown. The monster hunting him is called Ursa, the bear, and all he has to fight it with is a spear. Done well, that's fantastic metaphor. Finding shelter in an old cave, and using charcoal from his fire to sketch his map and plan alongside millennia-old cave paintings of a horse hunt. Done well, fantastic metaphor. Being saved by the eagle whose chicks he tried to save from lions as a hint that it's not turning off fear of dying that leads to bravery, but of discovering something worth the dying for. Again and again, done well, fantastic metaphor.
But in the end, these hints at nuance disappear in the finale, when Fresh China gets whacked something righteous and he manages to turn off emotion and fear and become a machine (ironically Jaden Smith's only convincing acting in the movie). The real failing of the film isn't in the first layer or even really in the distractingly bad acting, it's in what its conception of bravery is. It tries to sell us on this notion that bravery means shutting off fear. But that's a child's notion of fear and bravery. Will Smith's character makes the interesting argument that fear is our mind telling us stories about the terrible things that might happen causing us to freeze. He's got that much right, but his solution, to root oneself so totally in the present that one feels nothing, is not the answer. That's what the animal does.
It's fascinating to me that a story that seems to touch so heavily on Frank Herbert's Dune, with his admonishment that fear is the mind killer, fails so totally to absorb anything more from that mythos. What Herbert argues is that the difference between a human and an animal is that a human can knowingly suffer, can feel pain and agony voluntarily, in order to earn a better future. Rooting oneself in the present is the precise opposite of that. Acting because you feel no fear when you should is not bravery, it's just a clever bit of cowardice.
All that being said, After Earth tries to talk intelligently about something, and I think it fails at making its argument. But I would much rather watch the attempt than the dozen other films at the theater that are dumber than rocks and have no aspiration of being more. And that's why I say a movie like this is so difficult to review properly. It tries and fails utterly. But I think disastrous attempts at thinking are more worth the watching than glitzy crap that doesn't bother.
After Earth is not a good movie. And I hope they make more like it.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.